Bob Dylan and David Bowie have had the honor of performing in front of acclaimed documentary director D. A. Pennebaker’s lens, and now New York rockers the National are getting a chance to join the club. The band’s Saturday night benefit concert for the Red Hot Organization at the Brooklyn Academy of Music will be webcast live on YouTube under the direction of Pennebaker, who made iconic music films like Bob Dylan’s Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop, and his filmmaking partner and wife Chris Hegedus, codirector of the Bill Clinton campaign film The War Room. “I sort of picture ourselves with a huge flank of pictures on screens in front of us, pointing like I’ve seen in movies: ‘This one, now this one.’ And I’m sure it isn’t going to be as simple as that,” Pennebaker tells Rolling Stone. “It’s just fun to be involved.”
Pennebaker and Hegedus say the National reached out for their assistance, and the opportunity sounded like an intriguing challenge. “They asked if we would direct a live broadcast. And we’ve never done that so I said, ‘Of course we will.’ I mean, you always want to try something new,” the 84-year-old Pennebaker says, adding that JoJo and Kip Pennebaker (the couple’s children, who are also filmmakers) will be helping out. Once the deal was struck, he and Hegedus headed to Brooklyn to record a short doc about the borough that will screen before the concert, as well as promos for the show, one of which features the National reenacting Pennebaker’s famed video for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with Pennebaker handling Allen Ginsberg’s cameo. The collaboration between the filmmakers and the band was so fruitful, Pennebaker made another rare appearance in front of the camera to portray a bartender in the National’s new video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” The National’s concert, presented by Zync from American Express, will stream on YouTube for a month following the show with additional footage, and the directors didn’t rule out the possibility of a DVD release in the future.
It’s been a while since Pennebaker and Hegedus focused on music — their most recent project was the food film King of Pastry. But over their long cinematic career, the duo has documented everyone from Dylan and Hendrix to Lennon and Yoko Ono. And though they also count Little Richard and Alice Cooper among their subjects, Pennebaker names their quirkiest as Jerry Lee Lewis (“He used to send us Christmas cards. He was terrific”) and Wilson Pickett (“Pickett was pretty crazy too. He shot a couple of people”).
When asked about one of his most famous films, Pennebaker recalls David Bowie’s 1973 concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was originally supposed to examine Bowie offstage, not as the Ziggy character. “I met Bowie backstage and we talked for awhile and I shot him in the dressing room and there was only a couple of us there. We didn’t go to a real concert to film him. But then when I saw him onstage I thought, ‘Holy shit! This is a film!’ There were only three of us to shoot it, but you know we just never let off on it, so it worked.” The rest is rock movie history.
Despite his impressive dossier of subjects, Pennebaker admits one of his biggest regrets is never capturing the Doors’ Jim Morrison on film. “I wish that we could’ve done something with him, but it just never happened with us. It was close,” Pennebaker says. In terms of contemporary stars, he expresses an interest in working with Norah Jones and a slightly more controversial pop sensation. “Lady Gaga would be interesting. One of my children used to know her in her school days. I think she’s fantastic,” Pennebaker says. “I sense that there’s a person of reach. The thing is, if they don’t come to you, it’s hard to go to all the agents behind which they hide to convince them that they should do a film. So you just wait, and if they never come, they never come.”
With Pennebaker and Hegedus on the verge of conquering two new mediums, live broadcast and YouTube, there’s still one new technology they have yet to attempt: 3-D. But while the couple has sat in on some 3-D camera presentations at the film festivals they often attend, Pennebaker is reluctant to embark into the third dimension. “I hesitate to ask people to put on glasses to watch one of my films,” he says. “That seems sort of over the top. But maybe they’ll get used to it.”